Fagel Speaks

Maternity Ward–1936*

When I first came to New York

       everything was brown, no trees.
       I saw the concrete courtyards
       of the Bronx.

Still, I found another village here,
friends who spoke my language,
joined the same struggle.
I led rent strikes, brought my students,
marched with the Council
of the Unemployed.

The poverty was no worse here
than in Poland: I remember my younger sister
dying of starvation; I could do nothing;
I smuggled tobacco on my body
after my father died.
Here though people thought it unusual
called it a depression
were willing to fight back.

I was never not political.
Politics kept me human.
It was impossible to live with so much need
and not see more than every day.
I felt myself a part of history.

Motl did not think the same.
        He was jealous of my strength, never trusted it,
        thought me ruthless because I valued
        something else as much as him. He was afraid
        I’d leave him, go places he couldn’t.
        He wanted me home like other women,
        satisfied with mule caresses.
        I didn’t want the child at first,
        even this marriage.

My brother Beryl doesn’t understand.
      He is single-minded, his politics bitter.
      He thinks only of himself.
      When he left, it was for different reasons.
      He told me what he saw, the SS ships
      at the harbor.
      He believes in a world where
      only their methods can work.

These last months I’ve been pregnant
    is the first time I’ve had
    to go slow, write down these thoughts.
    I go to the park, see the green leaves
    which make me think of spring in Ostroleka.

I’m having trouble breathing.
    I’m losing more blood. I hear them talking
    to the doctor, Motl and Beryl.
    They always were allies, trying to tame me,
    feeling I should give to them
    what strength I have.

Phyllis Stern’s poetry has been published in Jewish Currents magazine, Womanews, and the anthology Making Contact; this poem first appeared in Home Planet News! 1983). She has also written articles on health for Whole Life Times

*This poem is based on the diary of my aunt Fagel Shtern, a teacher and labor leader in the Yiddish community of New York, written during the last year of her life. She died in childbirth in 1936.